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Andy’s Travel Diary

Thursday, 07 Dec 2006

Location: Myanmar


The new travelling trio (Ruth, Sam and I) left separately to Phuket. They travelled via plane and i went by bus, both because i am petrified of flying still, and i needed to get a visa extension. The nearest country on the route to Phuket was Myanmar. After all my debates about whether or not to travel to the country i found it necessary, at least for a day.

The journey did not start well. Why do i always find the most inept taxi drivers? Even with the bus station written down in Thai he spent half an hour trying to drop me elsewhere. Arriving at the correct station I found the bus to Rangon (the Thai border town) did not leave for two hours. So i had to sit and listen to cars crash on a nearby arcade machine at ear piercing levels. The bus i eventually boarded was no VIP extravaganza as evident by the locals who filled it up. I was the sole traveller. Estate Agents would describe the vehicle as brimming with character. The air con was arctic and permanent, the stringy, moth eaten blanket was impregnated with bed bugs and the seats were uncomfortable and made of only the hardest sticky leather and plastic - like sleeping on a bed of a thousand feathers.

Ten hours later i arrived in a dark and deserted bus station in Rangon. Luckily a guesthouse glowingly reviewed in the Lonely Planet was just around the corner. I would hate to visit the reviewers house. My room was small and basic. The toilet/shower was disgustingly dirty, mouldy and inefficient. Taking a shower would have been quicker under a dripping tap. And the door did not shut properly.

Next day was the visa run. Myanmar here i come - even if for an hour or two.

Thought there might be other backpackers on a similar trip but i was the only one ushered onto a small, wooden longboat to cross the small body of water separating Thailand from Myanmar. On the way we stopped at Thai imigration to get stamped out. A small boy hopped on, took it to the office and then stayed in the boat as we pulled off.

My new friends name was Ali, a Burmese kid from across the water. I began to ask him various questions including whether i should call the country Burma or Myanmar; the problematics of a name a particular issue for this country.

Naming is significantly more than an exercise in linguistic creativity. The politics of naming is an oft overlooked arena for deconstruction. Names have a nature, power and function which are masked by naturalization. Names can erase histories of conquest, dispossession and genocide as in America and/or inscribe particular historical memories, experiences or processes. They can mask the identity, rights and owndership of local populations and undermine the religious and cultural significance of locations. Names can therefore be sites of cultural struggle, arenas within which indigenous populations fight to regain that which was lost through colonial military and cultural violence.

More than that, names can fundamentally alter the narratives with which we frame ourselves, others and the situations we find ourselves in. Look at the recent discursive battles concerning the relationship between the nature of certain political actors in Iraq and whether they should be termed ‘terrorist’ or ‘insurgent’. The former instantly delegitimizes the cause of the actor and builds impenetrable linguistic boundaries around any historical or cultural inquiry into their reasons for fighting. They are simply evil. Questions concerning their motivations become unaskable. Names therefore provide the discursive horizons within which responses and policies are debated and eventually decided upon.

In short names are important!

India, like other postcolonial states has undergone an ad-hoc process of ‘name indigenization’ since independence in 1947. Amonst others, Madras, Bombay and Calcutta are now called Chennai, Mumbai and Kolkata respectively.

In 1989 Burma was redesignated Myanmar. It seems only right that the British designated ‘Burma’ should be changed to Myanma (or derivatives of). This was after all the name of the old Burman kingdom destroyed by the British in the nineteenth century and would thus further the long and complicated process of de-colonization. Indeed Myanma has been the official name of the country in the Burmese literary language (as opposed to the colloquial) since independence in 1948. Indigenization is a healthy process, part of the psychological recovery from imperialism, which complements political, economic and social decolonization.

So why is the name of the country an issue? Criticism initially concentrates on the fact that the undemocratic military regime has no legitimacy or right to change the name. Hence it is possible to determine the political leanings of a person speaking about the country by the way they name it. Several countries, most notably the USA, United Kingdom, Australia and Canada refer to it as Burma.

Furthermore, even though the military claimed the name Myanma was more inclusive of minorities than the name Bama, it has been argued the change has the reverse effect. Minorities, many of whom do not speak Burmese, were accustomed to the English name “Burma”. The change was thus perceived as Myanmarisation, a purely Burmese name reflecting the state policies of suppressing minorities through the domination of the ethnic Burman majority. Aung San Suu Kyi (the imprisoned opposition leader for those who have forgotten) initially opposed the renaming because of the hypocritical justification of minority inclusiveness.

Back to Burma then? Yet that would be reverting to its imperial name and thus would appear to condone rulers who were just as illegitimate and unwanted as the present ones. However, many linguists contend that the complex pronunciation rules in Burmese mean that although the country’s name is spelled Myanmar it is actually pronounced Bhama. Burma is thus a derivative of this and therefore the usage of this name should not be an issue. Indeed in the 1930s, many independence parties favored the name Bama.

Finally, the military regime has long been suspicious of the colloquial Burmese language, which it perceives as subversive. Because the colloquial Burmese name ‘Bama’ mirrors the English ‘Burma’ the junta decided to get rid of it. ‘Burma’ is therefore a form of minor opposition. Under overly oppressive regimes names, language and other day to day activities become highly politicised and can be considered forms of passive resistance questioning the legitimacy of the rulers and underminig their authority to a surprising degree. This is clearly evidenced by the heavy-handed persecution for nicknaming or play on words handed down by the military. Even so the Burmese continue to engage in this cultural disobedience. I recently read that when the SLORC was renamed the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), “the military was quick to give it a proper Burmese initials na-ah-pha. This, however, did not stop quick-witted Burmese people to talk of na-ah-pha as the initials for nwa ah phwe, meaning the organizations of cows”.

For this reason i will refer to the country as Burma but only when referring to the country in English (the military did not change the name in burmese). Opposition parties, although they oppose the English name “Myanmar”, do not oppose the official Burmese name Myanma.

Back to where this discussion began, when i asked Ali he said unquestioningly that i should call it Burma. I don’t think he liked the junta much from the way he said it. I didn’t press him. I’ve already set out in a previous post how dangerous discussing politics with locals can be (for them).

I felt a mixture of excitement and apprehension on the boat journey. The scenery in front of me was certainly foreboding. The mountains on the Burmese side were a mix of dark greens and blues and the weather seemed unpredictable. Feelings of apprehension increased when i fumbled around in my carry bag and spotted the book i was reading - blazened across the front was the title, including the word Democracy. Not my wisest move to date given the junta’s well known aversion to the concept and practice.

The little of the country i saw was intriguing and beautiful. Though ominous and dark the mountains appeared lush and overgrown and golden chedis, glistening in the sun capped many of the peaks. In the foreground the sea was the colour of jade, one of Burma’s main exports.

Approaching the coast the brown mass of semi-permanent shanty towns that lined the banks came into focus - a jumble of deteriorating and dilapitated shops and houses. Many of the toilets were small shacks across a wooden walkway over the water. I wanted to explore but had little time to myself.

As the boat touched the jetty i was immediately approached by young men directing me in the right direction. First was immigration where the usual stamping, verifying and recording took place and, more unusually I was told how very handsome and tall i was. Talk about preaching to the choir.

I was issued a day visa in the country. I stepped out of the office to find the same young men waiting for me. I asked them if they knew of a tea-shop nearby. I’ve always wanted to visit a Burmese tea shop. They not only pointed me in the right direction but followed asking if i liked football, what team did i support (I lied and said Manchester United, that is a team no?!) and where was I from. The tea shop was nothing like i expected - an old building with a charming air of colonial decay on the outside and a dark, smoky room inside with a steaming kitchen and George Orwell sitting in the corner. No. Think plastic chairs, open air, and tropical mould. But nonetheless charming. I sat down, as did my new (unwanted) friends. The table quickly became laden with cakes, samosas and rice desserts. The samosas in particular were amazing. I washed them down with a thick, sweet tea added to which was a generous dollop of condensed milk. Delicious.

Throughout i was unaggressively hassled by the men.

“You want to buy strong whisky?”

“Want to buy Viagra?”

“What about Opium?”

No, no and definitely no. On the journey back my bag was searched by the Thai authorities. A warning to anyone doing a similar trip!

Ali was actually the first person to offer me viagra and informed me solemnly and with no hint of irony that it was “very powerful!” He could not have been older than seven.

I couldn’t stay long as i wanted to reach Phuket as soon as possible so Ruth and Sam would not be by themselves, so i bade farewell and handed over some thai baht which they requested for their unwanted company. Much like back home - friends need to be bought.

Back on the boat i felt more comfortable taking pictures but as we passed Burmese immigration, which was a small shack over the water on a lonely island, the authorities blew a whistle and ordered our boat to turn around and dock. Bear in mind i was the only passenger in the vessel and so felt rather worried at this point. Luckily as we approached closer we were told to continue. The driver of the boat looked thoroughly relieved. I didn’t want to know why.

Back in Thailand there were a fw more stamps to collect and then i was back at my guesthouse again. It barely took four hours.

Just from that small trip i know i would like to visit more but for now, with my Thai visa extended for another month i had to make my way to meet the others who were at a resort in Phuket.